It’s a fascinating yet daunting time for several of the Premier League’s brightest managerial minds. Mauricio Pochettino faces an uphill battle in kicking his prosaic Spurs side into shape, Brendan Rodgers is in a dogfight to extinguish the mediocrity of Liverpool’s season last year while Eddie Howe is acutely aware that he will need every last bit of nous in his reserves to keep Bournemouth’s fairy-tale alive. But perhaps the most compelling narrative is being constructed at Southampton, where Ronald Koeman must rise to the challenge of maintaining the Saints’ status as the league’s most fashionable outfit.
Nobody has suffered first-team decimation like Southampton in the last three years. St Mary’s has been forced to contend with an endless stream of talent departing for pastures greener and after a summer that witnessed the exit of Nathaniel Clyne and Morgan Schneiderlin to further increase the pressure on Koeman, it is a season laced with uncertainty for Southampton after the exhilarating excellence of this time last year, when the Saints marched on all fronts and took English football by storm.
Much of their intoxicating style and substance last year was owed to their tactically astute boss, Koeman. It is never easy coming into a club where the predecessor has left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the fans and laid out a blueprint for the future with a style of football embraced by the players and fans alike. However, in Koeman, Southampton had found a manager who spent the better part of two decades carefully honing his skills as a proficient tactician and advanced student of the game. Koeman’s managerial odyssey had seen him occupy the dugout – as either head or assistant coach – at Barcelona, Valencia, Ajax and Feyenoord among others and he came to Southampton with a dossier of tactical conceptions and a vision of how he thought the club could progress and prosper with Pochettino’s departure still being felt as a raw wound.
We all know how Koeman fared in his debut season in English football. After blowing the sceptics away with a remarkable opening stretch that included four wins in the first six league games and a momentous Capital One Cup triumph over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Koeman established the Saints as European contenders in building one of the most efficient and highly-organised Premier League units. In a tumultuous first summer, Koeman was forced to contend with key assets such as Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert all leave the club. However, in dipping into the market with two eye-catching acquisitions from his native Eredivisie in Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic, Koeman set his sights on not only maintaining Pochettino’s legacy at the club, but improving on it.
His first twelve months in the Premier League was a period when he fashioned an image of himself as a diligent and perspicacious tactical mind, outfoxing an old adversary in Louis van Gaal when he instructed his wide players to tuck inside at Old Trafford and cut off Manchester United’s creative supply to Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria, who van Gaal was attempting to coax into a secondary striker role. That 1-0 victory offered a tactically fascinating snapshot of the various stratagems at work in Koeman’s paradigm. It was undoubtedly one of the most satisfying afternoons of the Dutchman’s career.
With a momentous first season in tow, Koeman now faces a considerably sturdier challenge in his second season. The further changes in personnel have plunged the club’s halcyon period into a potentially uncertain sequence and Koeman must now utilise all the tactical tools at his disposal in order to keep the sheen on this Southampton side.
In tactical terms, Southampton remained impressive against Newcastle in their first game of the season. The attacking quartet of Pelle, Mane, Rodriguez and Tadic all moved frequently to create space and exploit the weaknesses in the Geordie defence. Indeed, it was the movement of Tadic which created space for Cedric Soares to maraud forward and pick out Pelle in the area, who duly contributed the opening goal of the season. However, what looked to be another heralding of a strong start to the season rapidly descended to an afternoon of deep frustration for Koeman and his coaching staff. The fluidity of the attackers could not mask the deficiencies appearing in defence. In playing a 4-2-3-1 that had served them so well last season, Southampton supporters would have been forgiven for expecting another seamless passage to three points but Steve McClaren’s Newcastle, in exploiting the vulnerabilities of the away side at St James’ Park, gave Koeman plenty of food for thought.
Of course, one of the most damaging departures this summer past was Schneiderlin’s high-profile switch to Manchester United, forcing Koeman into finding a replacement worthy of forming the screen in front of the back four which contributed so greatly to the Saints’ parsimonious defence last season (their 33 conceded was only one higher than Chelsea as the league’s best defence). While Jordy Clasie is seen as the long-term replacement for the Frenchman in the middle, Oriol Romeu has also been drafted in to bolster Koeman’s midfield pack.
In the first home game of the season, Koeman endured one of his most harrowing afternoons as the club’s manager. Roberto Martinez – another disciple of high-pressing tactical systems – dismantled Koeman’s unit with some blistering counter-attacking football and devastating finishing. After a profoundly disappointing performance in the first-half culminating in Everton leading 2-0, Koeman was forced to bring on Romeu in place of Tadic in order to restore some composure and control in the middle of the pitch. However, with the resolute and ultra-organised Toffees’ shield in front of Romeu and his two fellow central midfielders, Davis and Wanyama, the Saints were reduced to pumping in an avalanche of crosses from the left flank in a lop-sided and ineffective tactical deployment from Koeman.
In the following game, Koeman was obliged to tweak things tactically as he brought his troops to Vicarage Road to face newly-promoted Watford. If Koeman was slightly disconcerted over their beginning to the season, another lacklustre performance during a 0-0 draw was far from the antidote. The coach had decided to change to a back three consisting of Stephen Caulker, Jose Fonte and Maya Yoshida, with Matt Targett and Soares pushing slightly higher up the pitch as wing-backs. However, in Romeu and Wanyama sitting just behind Davis, the away side lacked a creative spark which was exacerbated by the enforced absence of Sadio Mane – who was withdrawn after injury. If Koeman wants to follow in van Gaal’s footsteps in trying to embrace a 3-5-2, he will encounter a number of potential problems. With a lack of pace – especially if Mane ends up leaving – Southampton could be confined to the same slow, laborious and toothless possession without an end product that exposed United to a barrage of criticism last year.
While Koeman openly claimed to be delighted with his side’s defensive solidity in the 0-0 draw with Watford, that would signal something of a regression from last season. Having a compact defence is nothing when your attackers are drawing blanks. To take the pressure off Pelle and Rodriguez, who is still in the teething period after 16 months out with anterior cruciate ligament damage, Koeman should seek investment in a quality striker that will reinvigorate this limp-looking Saints side. Players like Mane and Shane Long will offer plenty of industry, but there are serious doubts over their credentials as 20 goals a season forwards. He will also require further investment in a combative defensive presence in midfield much in the mould of Wanyama, who very much appears to be heading elsewhere. It will indeed be interesting to see how Koeman sets up in the Europa League qualifier against FC Midtylland, having only managed a 1-1 draw at home the first around.
What is clear, regardless of Southampton’s involvement in the Europa League, is that Koeman faces the greatest challenge of his managerial career in terminating the early-season fears emanating from a stuttering start to get the Saints soaring once again. It’s a storyline definitely worth following in the season ahead.